Sleepless Afternoons

Avi Shlaim

  • The Passionate Attachment: America’s Involvement with Israel by George Ball and Douglas Ball
    Norton, 382 pp, £17.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 393 02933 6

In his farewell address in 1796 George Washington counselled the new nation to refrain from ‘passionate attachment’ to or ‘inveterate hatred’ of any other nation and to cultivate instead peace and harmony with all. A passionate attachment to another nation, he warned, could create the illusion of a common interest where no common interest exists. To speak, as George Ball and his son do, of America’s passionate attachment to Israel involves a slight exaggeration for, as Charles de Gaulle once remarked, there are no love affairs between states. Even the love affair between American Jews and Israel is only skin deep: American Jews admire Israel for her body, while Israelis are attracted to American Jews for their money.

Nevertheless, Washington’s farewell address does serve to spotlight the two central themes of this wide-ranging and rather rambling book. The first is that in this relationship America has been the loser in political and moral terms as well as in financial ones. The second and related theme is that America’s over-indulgent attitude towards Israel has not been an unmixed blessing: ‘If a passionate attachment harms the infatuated country, it can equally injure the nation that is the object of its unrequited affection.’

Even some of Israel’s most devoted friends in America would admit that she is not the most gracious or grateful of partners. Henry Kissinger, a leading advocate of the strategic partnership with Israel, had this to say on Israeli negotiating tactics: ‘In the combination of single-minded persistence and convoluted tactics, the Israelis preserve in the interlocutor only those last vestiges of sanity and coherence needed to sign the final document.’ No less revealing is Kissinger’s comment on Yitzhak Rabin, the present prime minister who had served as Ambassador to Washington in the early Seventies: ‘Yitzhak had many extraordinary qualities, but the gift of human relations was not one of them. If he had been handed the entire United States Strategic Air Command as a free gift he would have a. affected the attitude that at last Israel was getting its due, and b. found some technical shortcoming in the airplanes that made his accepting them a reluctant concession to us.’

A typical example of the way Israel exploits America is provided by the saga of the Lavi aircraft. To secure American agreement to this hare-brained project in 1982, Israel assured America that the planes would be solely for Israeli use. Yet early the following year the Israeli Aircraft Industries issued a marketing brochure entitled ‘Lavi – the affordable fighter’. The Pentagon opposed the Lavi from the beginning, as did the State Department. One State Department official remarked that ‘they were going to build this airplane. All they needed was American technology and American money.’ By the time the project was finally killed, America had provided more than 50 per cent of the technology and 90 per cent of the funding.

Moshe Dayan summed up the Israeli view of the special relationship when he said: ‘Our American friends give us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms but we decline the advice.’ As well as pursuing single-mindedly their own national interests, Israelis, with characteristic chutzpah, tend to assume that they know better than American leaders what is in the American interest. Often in this highly unequal relationship, it has been the tail that wags the dog.

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